We’ve probably all heard the tale of the fox who raided the chicken coop and had to be hunted down by the farmer. But have you heard about the farmer agreeing to let the fox investigate the incident in order to determine whose fault it was that the chicken coop was raided and why neither the fox nor the chicks might be at fault after all?
Well, apparently that is what President Rodrigo R. Duterte (the president of the sovereign nation of the Philippines, in case you have forgotten) would like to happen. A fishing boat being sailed by 22 Filipino fisherman and fishing in Philippine waters was reportedly rammed and sunk by a Chinese boat.
Worse yet, as the Pinoy boat sank and the 22 Filipino fishermen were in danger of drowning, the Chinese boat abandoned them. Fortunately, the crew of a Vietnamese boat that also happened to be fishing in the area came to their rescue.
This has been the testimony of the Filipino fishermen.
The Chinese embassy in Manila has a different version of the incident. According to an official Chinese statement, the Chinese vessel was “besieged” (that is, threatened or intimidated) by seven or eight Filipino fishing boats and the Chinese crew was thus afraid to rescue the Filipino fishermen. According to one news report, the captain of the Chinese boat tried to save the Filipinos but was “afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats.”
As more and more observers (that is, kibitzers) have weighed in on the incident, the narrative has become more and more muddled, One online news item stated: “Palace casts doubt on Filipino fishermen’s tale of Reed Bank allision (sic).”
“MANILA — Some details in the testimonies of the Filipino fishermen on the allision (sic) of their fishing boat and a Chinese ship don’t add up, a Palace official said Tuesday.
“Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the incident must be investigated thoroughly as recent developments show conflicting details between the narratives of FB GEM-VER boat captain Junel Insigne, and its cook Richard Blaza.”
Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol was reportedly “unsure what the Chinese ship intended to do” (that is, willfully and maliciously ram and sink the Filipino boat). Thus, Piñol believes that the incident still “needs to be investigated and validated by a proper maritime investigating body.”
For his part Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (yes, the one in charge of harnessing Philippine military forces to defend the Philippines) is said to have begun entertaining “doubts that the Chinese ship intended to bump the Filipino boat.”
(That is, willfully, malevolently, cruelly and viciously intended).
Not surprisingly, those who have been following this story no longer know whom to believe. To quote the lyrics of Harry Belafonte’s song: “It was clear as mud and it covered the ground, and the confusion made the brain go ’round…”
And so Duterte (the president of the Philippines, remember?) has reportedly agreed to have this incident “investigated” by both the Chinese and the Philippine government.
Needless to say, Duterte may be foraying in murky waters. One of the first premises that he needs to establish is that the incident happened in Philippine territory.
If Duterte succeeds in establishing that and in making the Chinese acknowledge that (as well as Vietnam, because the Vietnamese boat that rescued the Filipino fishermen was also fishing in the area), then the “joint investigation” will be well worth it.
Note that the honorable members of the Philippine Senate are objecting to having the Chinese participate in the inquiry because, according to Senator Franklin Drilon, allowing China to do so would “derogate our jurisdiction and prejudice our claim” in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the heavily disputed South China Sea.”
Drilon reportedly added that “the collision happened right within the country’s territorial waters, a fact that China had already acknowledged.”
Really? Have the Chinese already acknowledged that the area where the ramming occurred is Philippine territory?
According to one news account by journalist Steven Stashwick, “Reed Bank, which the Philippines calls Recto Bank, lies about a hundred nautical miles northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan and is at the northwest tip of the contested Spratley Islands. A 2016 arbitration ruling held that the bank is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but it is also claimed by China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.”
The report added that the area is said to have significant reserves of natural gas: “The Philippines has conducted surveys of the bank but China has interfered with efforts to explore for gas and has insisted on taking the lead in any joint exploration or exploitation venture.”
Understandably, Senator Panfilo Lacson has expressed apprehension that “allowing a joint investigation with China and a third party may be interpreted as a waiver of our right of ownership of Recto Bank.”
To go back to the tale of the fox who raided the chicken coop, allowing a joint investigation would be like giving the fox proprietary rights over the chicks.
At any rate, assuming Panelo, Lorenzana, and Piñol have a basis for doubting certain parts of the account of the incident, as told by the Filipino fishermen, there appear to be agreement on the following:
a.) A Filipino fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese boat (the Chinese embassy has acknowledged that the Chinese boat’s crew intended to save the Pinoys, thus in effect admitting their involvement in the sinking);
b.) There has been damage to property that needs to be compensated.
c.) The Philippine government’s firm position should be that the ramming (whether malicious or accidental, intended or unintentional) happened in Philippine territory.
Lorenzana, Piñol, and Panelo — and most of all Duterte — should stop trying to soft-pedal their version of the incident and leave the Chinese to do that. Whatever the intentions of the Chinese, let them be the ones to rationalize it — not Lorenzana, Piñol, or Panelo and, for heaven’s name, not Duterte. And Foreign Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin should stop trying clumsy diplomatic language that simply makes the situation “clear as mud,” to quote Belafonte,
One more thing: Is this incident so serious as to break amicable relations with China. Apparently not, but it certainly is one more example of the Chinese acting like a fox raiding the chicken coop.
Duterte, Locsin, Lorenzana, Piñol, Panelo, Drilon, Lacson and, oh yes, Vice-President Robredo, should agree on that and express their grave concerns to the Chinese.
The fox and the Chinese should be reminded that Filipinos are not chicken.
(ALLISION: the running of one ship upon another ship that is stationary — distinguished from collision. This is according to www.merriam-webster.com. — Ed.)
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.